I have decided to follow Jesus.
It was probably about four years ago when I resolved to do this, and it has changed my life significantly. I anticipate each new insight that he shares with me and with my fellow followers, which range from reminders of his most fundamental teachings from his Galilean ministry, to opinions on coffee and college football.
Yes, ever since I started following @JesusofNaz316 on Twitter, my life has never been the same.
Now, obviously, this is not the real Jesus (or is it?). It is but one of many accounts on that particular online medium offering insights of various kinds. Some are light-hearted, such as his regular morning tweet, where he quotes a hymn lyric substituting certain words with “coffee.” Others are more serious in tone, such as calling America to account for its hesitation to take action on gun violence after each mass shooting.
Those who follow this account can expect a healthy mix of affirmation, humor, and occasional prophetic commentary on a daily basis.
Of course, there are many more accounts on Twitter than just parodies of religious figures. If you know how and where to look, you can find fellow fans of your favorite sports team, celebrities, social justice advocates, comedians, authors, and theologians. Each new 140-character thought is delivered in rapid succession from millions of users every moment.
For regular Twitter users reading this, I’ve yet to offer much in this post that sounds original or groundbreaking. You know this already.
Unfortunately, such a group—particularly in a denomination known for its progressive stances nationally—is quite small.
At General Synod in Cleveland, Huffington Post Religion Editor Paul Raushenbush offered some commentary on the importance of churches having an online presence.
To the dismay of some, the Internet is not a passing fad that will soon fade away to make room for the mighty return of the typewriter or the grand resurgence of newsprint. It’s here to stay, and many churches, true to form, have lagged behind in embracing that fact.
Does your church have a website? If so, how long has it been since it was updated?
Does the front page still feature an announcement about a new exciting event coming up in the fall of 2013?
Does your church have a Facebook page? If so, how often does something new appear there?
Are you regularly using it to share news about your congregation, or did somebody make it years ago because it was “The Thing To Do,” and now someone posts something only when they remember it exists?
The Internet, particularly social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, is for interaction.
And as Raushenbush observed, there are many voices offering commentary that purport to represent the Christian faith, many of them harmful to minority groups who have experienced historical discrimination and oppression under the church’s watch, and often with its approval.
The Internet needs other voices offering hope, healing, and welcome; the assurance that there are safe and inviting places striving to embody God’s love in a world many have experienced to be harsh and hurtful.
Social media has many detractors, of course. Take Twitter, for example: some may see it as uniquely self-indulgent in its encouragement to type out any and every thought that pops into a user’s head. If one really wanted to find examples of this, such a search wouldn’t take very long.
At the same time, consider the great difference made by people who use it well. The Arab Spring rallies of a few years ago largely were organized on Twitter. The #BlackLivesMatter movement, protesting the systemic violence inflicted against the African-American population, was organized on Twitter.
Or perhaps you were one of the many who dusted off your neglected Twitter account to offer commentary under the #GS2015 hashtag on the events of General Synod. Remember the conversation and interaction; the urgency you felt in adding your witness to the chorus of voices, the felt importance of making your thoughts known to your fellow UCC members?
Imagine doing that more than five days every two years. Imagine the difference that more people offering a counter-narrative of love, peace, and justice to the conversation against voices of hatred and judgment.
Imagine being part of an online presence helping to testify to a God of forgiveness and grace, offering reassurance that churches exist where one is free to admit doubts, ask questions, and be welcomed without prerequisite or pretense.
Jesus needs followers on the highways and byways of the Internet as much as anywhere else.
What sort of positive message could others see if we did so in greater numbers?
Jeff Nelson is pastor of Grace United Church of Christ in Uniontown, Ohio, as well as a spiritual director and writer. He also blogs at Coffeehouse Contemplative.